Reflection – a much needed (and missed) aspect of academic life

I’ve been in Academia a long time, I started my PhD in 1977, and things have changed quite a lot over those forty odd years.  In those heady days of the 1970s and 1980s, an academic taught, did research, wrote papers, reviewed papers wrote grant proposals and even found time to write books. There was also a valuable commodity, time; time to sit back and reflect during work hours. This could involve sitting at your desk with your feet up and your eyes closed or like

Charles Darwin and his ‘thinking path’, go for a walk or a run in the fresh air or just sit under a tree or lie back in the grass and watch the clouds go by as new ideas bubbled up in your mind.

Reflecting on life

When I was in my last year as an undergraduate desperately preparing for my final exams, I would, in between revision bouts, go and sit under a cherry tree outside the Agriculture Building and just let my brain rearrange all the facts that I had accumulated over the past four years of study into some sort of coherent order. It worked and much to my surprise I got a First Class degree. I’m a wee bit older now but it still works.

The important thing when I began my academic career was that there was an opportunity within the working day to gather one’s thoughts and let connections form.  It didn’t necessarily have to be blue sky thinking, just a chance

Blue sky thinking or daydreaming?

to clear the turbid and muddied thoughts and get them into some form of order and allow you to process them into something worthwhile and hopefully clear your mind so that new exciting ideas break through and bubble out into the light.

Struggling to clear those turbid thoughts.

It’s all becoming clearer

In those halcyon days there were, in all the places I worked, well established and popular morning and afternoon coffee/tea breaks.  In fact in Finland where I worked at the Agricultural Research Station just outside Helsinki, we even had breakfast together (early starters those Finns), and in my early days at Silwood Park not only was there morning coffee in the Refectory (Paddy’s to some of us), but in the afternoon we repaired to the Conservatory and Orangery where the redoubtable and doughty Pearl wheeled in her tea trolley and we, depending on the season and weather, either sat inside or reclined outside on the grass chatting and imbibing our drinks of choice. 😊

Back in the 1980s, and this may come as a surprise to the modern academic/researcher, we had typists (I met my wife in the typing pool) to wade through our hand-written drafts and type our papers for us. The along came technology and things began to change and not for the better.  Personal computers started to appear on everyone’s desk, not just in the computer rooms, the tyranny of email replaced the paper mail (finding your post tray full of envelopes was much more satisfying than logging on and finding your email folder telling that you have 120 unread messages) and worst of all, along came electronic ordering and costing. In the old days, if you wanted consumable you asked the Departmental Technician for them, or if not in stock they would order them for you. Similarly, for quotes for equipment for grants etc.  It makes no sense to me that academics should be responsible for ordering stuff themselves (Dreamweb?, Nightmareweb more like). If you don’t use a system daily then every time you do use it, it is a whole new time-consuming learning experience. Likewise, health and safety issues, surely much more efficient and cost-effective use of time to let the H&S Officers access the forms and do the assessments rather than the academic?  I could go on, but I think you know where I am coming from.

All of the above and the huge increase in student numbers (in the UK at any rate) with the concomitant increase in marking and teaching related administration meant yet another erosion of reflective time and as the years progressed a noticeable decline in the number of people finding or making time to venture out of their research silos to have coffee breaks away from their desks and labs.  Many academics now lunch in their offices.  This has meant a reduction in collegiality and the very valuable opportunity to talk and listen to colleagues from other fields.  When, after twenty years, I left Silwood Park, morning coffee in the Refectory had dwindled to just a handful of us entomologists☹ One of the many positive things of moving to Harper Adams was that there was (hopefully when Covid is controlled we can all get back there) a vibrant and very buzzy Staff Common Room which reminded me very much of my early days in academia. Until you experience it at first hand, you don’t realise how important a central, informal gathering place is to working life. A vibrant common meeting place has huge benefits for creative thinking, after all what is the most important part of a conference? Very rarely the talks; the bar, coffee and meal breaks are where it is at and the new ideas and partnerships are forged and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow found. The fewer the opportunities for relaxed social interactions, the fewer the good ideas we generate – coffee breaks, no matter how chatty, do, contrary to what some senior managers might think, improve productivity.

Without time to reflect one’s productivity goes down, thoughts are mired down in the turbid waters of toil and home and work life become entangled to a greater degree – I think the majority of us do our marking, paper reviewing, thesis reading, paper writing and in extremis, when working to a submission dead-line, our grant writing.  This is not sustainable and certainly not good for our well-being.  Do people still get proper sabbaticals, i.e. ones that the Department funds rather than having to apply to a grant body for one?  In my thirty odd years of university life I never had a sabbatical.

Now that I am Emeritus I am discovering a whole new world of time; time to walk and think, time to sit and think and time to read and write. If it were not for the fact that I am not in my office every day and thus missing out on the coffee culture I could imagine myself on sabbatical. Having the space and the ambiance to think and interact is hugely important. As a concrete example, a couple of years ago I invited two colleagues of mine with whom I am writing a book down to our French house in the Languedoc.  We had a very productive week, every morning working in separate rooms on the book, meeting up for lunch and then spending the afternoon relaxing and thinking.

Being productive away from the office

Since then, back in our respective work worlds, progress on the book has been glacial. Once international travel is back on the cards we plan to repeat the process and hopefully get the book back on course for publication next year.   I have, not quite tongue in cheek, suggested to my Head of Department that he might like to provide the funds to send members of staff down to our French house where I will provide paper and grant writing workshops 😊

Time spent in reflection is not time wasted, like plants, when given space and the right conditions, ideas flourish and bloom.

16 Comments

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16 responses to “Reflection – a much needed (and missed) aspect of academic life

  1. Our generation spanned the digital divide. Typing out our manuscripts (making corrections with tippex!), hand drawing graphs, passing paper notes to colleagues, ordering reprints (I used to love the stamps!) and going to libraries! Then came PCs (I remember being blown away by Google when I first used it), emails and all the digital software we had to learn how to manage. Now I marvel at the quality of research papers (fabulous graphs and coloured diagrams) and I suppose students all have to learn how to produce them. Our generation will pass by, but I think it is really useful to remind people how things were, like the value of face to face interactions over tea and coffee, thinking time and down time!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. For me it was the gradual chipping away at the summer months when there were, when I first started as an academic, no meetings and no teaching. I am not against teaching, in fact I loved it, but the summer was a time for reflection, and going to the odd conference. I also did the occasional experiment myself.
    Of course this is all a bit “Last of the Summer Wine” but the profession has changed enormously, mostly to its detriment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed, it behoves the people who run universities to realise this and think about what universities are really about

      Like

      • Jonathan Wallace

        “What universities are really about”

        Hmm, I fear that for those who preside over higher education nowadays they are sausage factories whose job is to squirt out graduates for the job market. Bums on seats is their main measure of performance. With this attitude, I don’t imagine that they have much sympathy for anyone needing time for reflection. It is a short-sighted attitude…

        Liked by 1 person

      • Indeed, the writing was on the wall when they moved universities away from the education into the Ministry of Business 😦

        Like

  3. I don’t even know what reflection is anymore. I am constantly running at 150%. If I get closer to 100%, people will shove more work on me. In contrast to the Dutch like me, Germans don’t do structured coffee breaks. In the Netherlands, the coffee breaks and lunch walks were where most side projects originated. It is therefore no surprise that I have not established any side projects within the department since I started working here.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Juan Corley

    I couldn’t agree more with you Simon. In another part of the planet, and a few years younger, I share the exact same sentiment. We are running around places; meetings and admin at the top tier of our daily chores. But also I notice students and postdocs alway chasing after something…and not only not spending time in ‘reflecting’ but also scanning through any literature outside there super specific topics…no time for reading that either…I attempted a few time to establish some structured breaks in my institute… and the most friendly comment I got was of the kind: “What a waste of time, mate!”

    Like

  5. Peter Thomas

    Here, here. One of my most enjoyable research projects – the effect of fire on succulent plants – started from a chat with a technician over coffee. We went on to do field work in America and Canada, and publish a number of joint papers. I can’t see that having happened now as we sit in our individual silos.

    Like

  6. Martin Pareja

    This was a beautiful piece Simon, thanks! It reflects everything I miss in modern academia. Here in Brazil we are completely overloaded with teaching and admin, and every year we have fewer technical and admin staff, so everything falls more and more on academic staff. There is no culture of structured breaks, so there is no real interaction with colleagues… each is on their own. Academia has really lost ita collective spirit.

    I can’t even remember the last time I had an interseting conversation with a colleague or felt “clear headed” enough to really think about an exciting problem in depth and enjoy reading, thinking and writing without 20 other things on my mind.

    On a personal note, the article reminded me of the atmosphere in Silwood back in 1999-2000 when I worked with you on my final year project and then stayed for the Masters. Fond memories…

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Kelly Papapavlou

    In neurobiology, reflection is officially described under the term “diffuse thinking” whch has been shown to be a valuable pathway towards learning and problem solving. No matter if it is accompanied by blue sky watching, coffee drinking or even dishwashing, reflection should therefore be seen as a justified part of critical thinking and data evaluation.

    Indeed, this was a beatiful piece!

    Liked by 1 person

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